BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL

GIRLFAN

Even Roses Have Thorns, Chapters 41-45
Friday, March 16, 2007

All already posted before, just posted together for convience of new and (re) readers. Overall rating NC-17; this applies to all chapters in this grouping, for violence, non-con, death, extreme angst (hurt w/o comfort) and generalised squickiness. Canon pairings +1 (River/ofc). Postive comments perfered; any cease and desists recieved will be complied with, and shown off at parties.


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 1941    RATING: 9    SERIES: FIREFLY

Even Roses Have Thorns

Chapter Forty-One: Veluti in speculum (As in a mirror) Part II

A/N1: the tense change here is deliberate, a sort of attempt at an almost onomatopoeic mental quality. It is intended to be a little weird, dissociatiative and confusing. A/N2:The quote on love is from Neil Gaimen's The Sandman, and the song is I don't like Mondays. I had the Tori Amos version in mind, but you can substitute the original if you're a fan. *** *** *** Chapters 1-10, Chapters 11-20, Chapters 21-30, Chapters 31-35, Chapters 36-40 *** *** *** From practically the moment they captured her, they handled her roughly. She hadn’t been shocked; in fact she suspected that it was no longer even possible for her to be shocked. But she was disappointed. It had been unexpected, and she hadn’t made it necessary. She’d gone easily, without the hint or threat of struggle, without a word of protest. Sad disappointment would be followed by inevitable betrayal – just not immediately. First there would be the waiting – wary, wearying – for Blue Sun to send its agents in. She didn’t think that would take long.

When she reached the end of the long corridor – mercifully devoid of other prisoners, though, no doubt, only at Blue Sun’s request – she stepped through the final door. Her guards – in their familiar, fondly remembered grey-and-purple – followed her. The two holding her threw her against the wall. Hands bound behind her back, she caught her herself with her right shoulder and breast, so that her face wouldn’t hit the wall; her battered left knee buckled under her weight, and her right cheek grazed across the cement. She closed her eyes at the friction, but mentally cut off the hiss rising to her lips at the pain. There would be plenty of time for that later.

*It’s ok,* she soothed her mind and body. *We’re just out of practice.* +You’d better get back in practice,+ her critical voice snorted. +This is what you get for letting yourself lose your edge and trust to the future again.+ *I know,* she agreed regretfully. +You actually fell in love. You are such an idiot!+ It was true. She really was an idiot. +After what you swore at the funeral. After everything!+ The feeling that engulfed her wasn’t self-pity. It was shame. *I hate love.*

The mantra returned to her with ease, one she’d memorised nearly the moment she’d read it; she’d abbreviated it, made it more general – it felt as much hers as anything was. More than most things were; it was not a person or possession – it could not be taken away. She recited it mentally, lips unmoving, as she – eyes forward and centre – obeyed the order to strip.

“Have you even been in love? Horrible, isn't it? It makes you so vulnerable. It opens your chest and it opens your heart and it means someone can get inside you and mess you up. You build up all these defenses. You build up this whole armor, for years, so nothing can hurt you, then one stupid person, no different from any other stupid person, wanders into your stupid life...

You give them a piece of you. They don't ask for it. They do something dumb one day like kiss you, or smile at you, and then your life isn't your own anymore. Love takes hostages. It gets inside you. It eats you out and leaves you crying in the darkness, so a simple phrase… turns into a glass splinter working its way into your heart. It hurts. Not just in the imagination. Not just in the mind. It's a soul-hurt, a body-hurt, a real gets-inside-you-and-rips-you-apart pain. I hate love.”

She could hear Egeria’s voice mulishly pointing out that it wasn’t fair, as her guards frisked her and removed her remaining weapons. *I know,* she mind-whispered to the memory of her sister’s voice.

She can feel the hunger in the air, the charge coming off of the guards. She’s closed her mind to it, but it doesn’t matter. It’s animal knowledge, scent and instinct and muscle-memory. Adrenaline courses through her veins and she tries to force it down. Neither fight nor flight would help. She has to stay calm, rational. The adrenaline makes it seem as if time has slowed down. She’s not surprised. She’s familiar with its effects.

She knows it’s not just going to end with a strip search, but the pack is held in charge by its leader, who somehow shows more restraint than she’d expected him too. He takes his flash light from his belt and thumbs it on, without ever taking his eyes from her naked form – she watches as he even occasionally allows his gaze to flicker to her face.

She’s mildly surprised by the flash light. In the charged atmosphere of the cell, it’s practically a courtesy. Visual cavity search only. The guard commander issues her a string of simple instructions, but she replies with a solid, quiet, “No, Sir.” It’s not that she doesn’t understand. She knows that a visual cavity search is easier to endure than a manual one, but it’s theoretical knowledge only: she’s never been able to make herself follow the required procedure, because the procedure requires the prisoner to manipulate their own body – parts – for examination. She can’t do it. Can’t even bring herself to try, even knowing the consequences. Even knowing the consequences from experience.

If she were to be really, truly completely honest with herself, she wouldn’t even be certain that she could make herself obey even if someone else’s life was on the line. Even if it was more than one life. If she were to be really, truly completely honest with herself, she would probably conclude that she really might almost make herself try if someone else’s life was on the line. If it was more than one life – well, the odds got a bit better. She tried not to think about River, or Simon, or even Zoë or the Captain or Inara. What had she been doing when she’d allowed herself to fall in love? She’d finally rid herself of the last of her handles with the deaths of Egeria and Alistair. She’d been free. Her life was her own – well, the deepest parts of her mind and soul had been, at least.

The guard commander’s voice went deeper than she’d have liked when he told her that the visual search was the ‘easy way’, and she was getting a cavity search one way either way. She’d already known that. Did she understand? “Yes, Sir.” As he snapped the gloves on, she frantically tried to pick a task to concentrate on, while she ignored what she suspected was a barely concealed leer on the commander’s face. Poetry was good – but she’d need something longish and neutral – nothing political or romantic. Yeats! Sailing to Byzantium. She was not unaware of irony of it being Yeats, but she pushed that aside as she ran the poem through her mind before attempting to figure out how to recite it backwards. That was a complex task, and she had to run the poem forwards several times to find the next word or phrase to reverse.

The guard commander, at least, did the search in the correct order – no chance of cross-contamination – always the first risk when facing an invasive cavity search not done by medical professionals. She was not so lucky on the second count, but refocused on the poem magnificence own its of monuments/ studying but school singing there is nor/ dress mortal its in tatter. She took a breath and exhaled as the commander’s hand slid from within her, trying to ignore the pain. He’d torn her, whether intentionally, merely or close to. She knew that he was deliberating being rough; all she could do was ignore it, him.

***

She lies on the floor of her cell, more than half elsewhere. It hadn’t taken long for Blue Sun to send agents to collect her, and they’d drugged her before they’d moved her. She’d woken up on the floor of the bare cell, stiff and bruised, and checked her body for injuries as soon as she determined that she was alone and could sit up without risk. It wasn’t any worse than she’d expected. Her face was grazed, and warm. Which meant that the cuts were probably infected. Her left knee was battered. It could hold her weight, but it was ready to buckle at the least provocation. And there was nothing she could do about the cuts inside. She didn’t even want to think about them. So she lay back down and forced herself to daydream. Eventually, she zoned out somewhere else and stayed there as long as she could.

Whatever part of her mind that scanned hypervigilantly for danger didn’t stop just because the rest of her wasn’t there. She is unceremoniously booted back into consciousness by something, and barely has time to register her disappointment, as she hears far-away footsteps drawing closer.

Her mouth form slight shapes and she focuses on the ceiling as she barely breathes out another mental distraction – though she has picked this one to suit the moment. It’s an old favourite. Morbid, like she is. Strange little girl. “And the playing’s stopped in the playground now, she wants to play with her toys awhile and school’s out early and soon we’ll be learning, the lesson today is how to die…”

Her thoughts turn to her last free – well, rented at an equitable price – air, and her desperate, disregarded plea; her lips twitch bitterly as she sings the next line of the song: “And then the bull horn cackles and the Captain tackles with the problems and the hows and whys – and he can see no reason cause there are no reasons – what reason do you need to die?”

Her lips fall into a thin line as the next line of the song plays itself across her mind. She refuses to voice it. “Tell me why.”

Why me? She stopped asking that question years ago. She wasn’t that pathetic.

Her lips quirk again. Why not me?

*** *** ***

Even Roses Have Thorns Chapter Forty-Two: Veluti in speculum (As in a mirror) Part III

A/N: How You Remind Me is by Nickelback, and Running up that Hill is by Kate Bush.

*** *** ***

When Zoë first passed the cargo bay, she saw Kaylee chattering away to Jayne while she helped him by spotting. When Zoë passed an hour later, they were still there, though Jayne had clearly finished his workout and the two were caught in some deep conversation. Zoë shook her head. That girl really needed to learn how to keep private business private.

***

Jayne breathed out as he hoisted the weights back into their cradle. He swung his legs over the side of the bench and patted the place next to him for Kaylee to sit next to him, finally deciding to offer a tiny perspective on her bizarre almost-monologue. “See, it ain’t like that at all, lil’Kaylee,” he tried, once again, to explain. “It’s just we ain’t a whole lot better than them ruttin’ hundans who beat on ‘im he says no, and we make him anyway. Yer a girl. Wouldna thought I’d have to explain that no means no.

“Well, ain’t like he didn’t agree, Jayne. Just gots cold feet is all,” Kaylee reasoned. “We gotta fix him Jayne, ain’t right ta leave him like this, all broken an’ all.”

Well, that had really been Jayne’s final argument. If she couldn’t understand that – well, he didn’t know what to offer her by way of reason, ‘cause she sure didn’t seem in the mood or market for it today. He thought again. If he couldn’t get her to stop pressing for it, at least maybe she might slow down. “Last time we tried ta fix him we got him more broke, Kaylee. Ain’t like it can’t wait, neither. No reason ta go racing full burn back ta Belleraphon like someone’ll die if we don’t.” One look in Kaylee’s eyes brought Jayne to a full stop. He could have kicked himself for all his wasted time and breath, ‘cause he knew he’d seen that look plenty often before. Weren’t a word wise enough to stop a girl from a bad decision ‘bout fixin’ up a fella she’d taken a shine to. Jayne disengaged himself from the rather one sided conversation, and got up to shower the sweat and rampant stupidity from his skin.

***

On the bridge, the Captain looked quietly at River as she muttered softly to herself, knees drawn up to her chest and staring out at the black. "Pretty to look at, lovely to hold, but if you break it, consider it sold." He didn’t ask.

***

As they got ready for bed, they barely said two words to each other; that was probably for the best. They were both exhausted and hurting: Kaylee still angry with Simon, and Simon still angry with – well, wasn’t easy to be sure exactly with whom Simon was angry. Maybe Kaylee, maybe himself, maybe both of them, maybe someone else entirely, but he was pretty definitely angry with someone or at something and it was clear that there was better than an odds-on chance that if either of them said anything deeper or more meaningful than "is there a clean towel?" or "pass me my pyjamas," one of them was going to snap and Simon had got a bad feeling was going to be him.

But Kaylee insisted on talking. “Simon, ya can’t be mad about this. I know you’re scared, but it’s the right thing ta do.” She’d made her voice was soft and somehow firm at the same time, like she’d decided that talking sense into to him would work, and she’d braced herself to see it through. Still campaigning. Still convinced that she could somehow wear down his resistance, his resentment.

It wasn’t enough that he was just going to do it, Simon thought to himself. It was never enough. He was tired of it never, ever, being enough.

At Simon’s utter lack of response – verbal or otherwise – she pressed a little more, a little harder. “Simon, we should talk about this,” she said firmly, like there was not so much as a single doubt in her mind about whether he would comply.

“That’s it.” Simon’s voice was low, but hard, and his head snapped up so that his eye could Kaylee’s eyes. “That? Is it. Get the hell out.”

Kaylee was taken aback at the venom of his response. “What? No, Simon, you can’t mean that.”

His eyes already hard and cold, she watched in disbelief as the line of his mouth twisted sourly. “I do. Go back to your bunk, or to your hammock, or to Inara. Just leave me alone.”

“No. Simon, we should talk about this.”

“Ok.” He stood up. “Then make yourself comfortable. Talk. I’ll sleep somewhere else.” Despite the gentle propriety of the words, his tone was as cold and angry as she’d ever heard it. He stalked across the hall to Ceres’ room and shut himself in. He couldn’t believe his lover’s audacity. We should talk about this? Right. Now that everyone else on board who’d listen to her for more than thirty consecutive seconds had been sampled for their opinion, now they should talk. They should talk? Is that what you kids call it these days? When had they ever just talked? He could lay the very cloth of heaven at her feet and she could – and would, if the mood struck her – find some way to construe it as a calculated insult. He snorted to himself. He was wrong. All they ever had done was talked. It had never, once, occurred to her to listen.

He’d barely gotten the door closed behind him and was walking toward the bed when he heard the hand pulling on the delicate doorframe. “Kaywinnet. Lee. Frye,” he seethed as he turned back to face her. “Leave. Me. Alone.”

His eyes, anger-fierce, met hers – scared but defiant. She braced herself to go to him, and shook her head. “Ain’t letting ya hurt yerself.”

“No, of course not. Where would the fun for you be in that?” At his sneering voice, she felt her face get hot. He closed the door again, and no sooner than he had, he felt her tugging at it again, but this time he was holding it closed. “So help me, Kaylee, if you come in here tonight I will put you back on your side of the door.” It wasn’t exactly a threat, because Simon was pretty sure that he could do it without actually hurting her, but it was much too close to a threat for him to feel okay with, and that just pushed Simon to a whole new level of mad.

Which was fine, because she’d just found a new level of mad-and-scared-at-the-same-time, and that was closer to genuinely being on the same page than the two of them had been in a long time. “Simon Tam, you ni hunqiu, you open this door!” At his silence, she tugged the door hard again, only to find that it still wouldn’t budge. “You coward!

Zoë finally spoke up from her own doorway. “Miss Frye, I suggest you get yourself back to bed.” Her face was more clearly-not-impressed than impassive. “And if you can’t sleep, at least have the courtesy not to go keeping any th’other crew up.” Zoë waited a good thirty seconds, and Kaylee still hadn’t moved, didn’t even acknowledge Zoë’s presence.

“Simon Tam, you let me in!” Kaylee hissed at the door in front of her with another tug on the handle that went nowhere.

“Kaylee.” Zoë moved up the hallway to stand beside the mechanic. “You go get yourself back to bed.” Zoë’s patience was running a little short where the younger woman was concerned, but her voice was gentle and not unkind.

“Zoë,” Kaylee’s protest was soft.

Zoë shook her head. “Won’t presume to tell you about your personal business, Kaylee, and while I can’t say that there isn’t a time and place for this,” indicating their quarrel with a small gesture of her hand and making her voice forged steel mid-sentence, “it’s not now and it’s sure as hell not here. So. You don’t want ta go back to bed, fine. But you don’t get yourself under control and outta this hallway in the next six seconds and I’ll have confined to quarters until morning.” The first mate looked pointedly in the direction of the end of the corridor and remarked with a solid, “Good night, Kaylee.”

“Good night, Zoë.” Reluctantly, Kaylee headed away from the passenger dorms.

Zoë waited until Kaylee was gone before rapping lightly on Ceres’ door.

Simon swallowed and tried to make his voice calm. He’d never learned to hide anger well. “Do you need something, Zoë?” It came out cold, rather than calm, but Simon was well past the town of Caring and closing fast on the turn off for Fuck-off-and-Die.

Zoë raised an eyebrow to the door panel. Simon was good, had to give him that. No ambiguity. No opening. She hadn’t expected a ‘come in’ – mad Simon didn’t appear very often, but he seemed to like being left alone. But no ‘can I help you?’ or ‘what is it?’ – that was genius in its level of closed-off-barely-contained rage. She could have whistled in admiration. Most people weren’t that fast on their feet when they were a whole lot calmer than Simon. But damn it if that boy wasn’t a boy scout when it came to snark. Always prepared. “Just wanted to say to good night, Simon.”

Simon pushed out the breath he’d been holding. “Oh. Of course. Good night, Zoë.” His voice came out a little tight, but almost normal. She made sure to let him hear her walk softly away.

Simon let his emotions swirl for a moment before reigning them in. His mind flipped up some lines jotted carefully among his notes. 'Pick a task. Sing songs. Recite poems. Walls of other-thought are better than pictures of walls. A wall is pretty clearly a wall. You can see it, and you wonder what’s on the other side. A poem is just a poem, a song may be caught in your head. Less obvious to the casual observer, and easier to focus on: one word leads to another. Aids concentration.' Well, time to see if it worked for him. He started to focus before he even allowed himself to admit what it was all in aid of.

Never made it as a wise man/I couldn't cut it as/A poor man stealing/Tired of living like a blind man/I'm sick of sight without/A sense of feeling/And this is how you remind me/This is how you remind me/Of what I really am/This is how you remind me/Of what I really am/

He murmured the words softly, but with bitter irony as he laid out the craft box, and the witch hazel and cotton balls, and organised everything to just the way the way he wanted it before he began.

It's not like you to say sorry/I was waiting on a different story/This time I'm mistaken/ for handing you/A heart worth breaking/And I've been wrong/I've been down/Into the bottom of every bottle/These five words in my head/Scream/Are we having fun yet?

As he picked up the blade to begin, he smiled tightly and switched songs. It doesn't hurt me./Do you want to feel how it feels?/Do you want to know that it doesn't hurt me?/Do you want to hear about the deal that I'm making?/You, it's you and me. And if I only could/I'd make a deal with God/And I'd get him to swap our places/Be running up that road/Be running up that hill/Be running up that building./If I only could, oh... You don't want to hurt me/But see how deep the bullet lies./Unaware I'm tearing you asunder./ Ooh, there is thunder in our hearts./ Is there so much hate for the ones we love?/Tell me, we both matter, don't we?

***

Behind the mirror, Banks tossed his partner a weary glance. “She seems to have an endless repertoire, doesn’t she?”

Green half-frowned in concentration, never taking his eyes off of the scene in front of him. Green pushed aside his unease at her effect on her interrogators. She was good at pushing buttons. He considered his reply. “Doesn’t matter. Let her tire herself out. This defiance will seem all the more wasteful tomorrow. I’ve suggested that we step things up then.” Green paused, causing his partner to glance his way again. “We should relieve Agent Cooper before he goes too far. I think he may break her jaw.”

Banks’ hand went straight to the call button, as the agent inside the room lashed out at his prisoner severely once again, but he still half-noticed it when the prisoner’s soft mezzo, long harsh from screaming, changed tempo, signifying that she was yet again moving from the end of one song to the beginning of the next and "Are we having fun yet?" became "It doesn't hurt me. Do you want to feel how it feels?"

*** *** *** Even Roses Have Thorns

Chapter Forty-Three: Veluti in speculum (As in a mirror) Part IV

A/N1: the tense change here is deliberate, a sort of attempt at an almost onomatopoeic mental quality. It is intended to be a little weird, dissociatiative and confusing. A/N2: The quote on love (reprised from chap. 41) is from Neil Gaimen's The Sandman, and the songs here are Dido’s See the Sun and 12 stones’ Crash.

*** *** ***

Mal was making his final pass of his ship before turning in when Kaylee found him. “Cap’n!”

She sounded a little – strangled. Overwrought. “Kaylee?” He asked, concerned, as he drew close.

Her explanation came out as one breathless tumble of words. “Simon’s in Ceres’ room cuttin’ on himself and he won’t let me in, and Zoë told me ta leave him alone and ta go back to bed.”

Aiya. Go se. If this wasn’t yet another ugly situation. He trusted Zoë’s judgement, and he couldn’t undercut her in front of crew. But, on the other hand – no: on the other hand, there was Zoë too; Zoë was he right hand and his left hand. He had to back her up, even if he didn’t understand why she’d done what she’d done, even if he wanted to ride to Kaylee’s rescue. “Then you’d best get yourself to bed, lil’Kaylee.”

“Cap’n?!” Kaylee’s voice was hurt-shocked. The Captain was her shining knight, her court of final appeal. She’d expected to at least be heard; and once she’d been heard, well, it was often the case that he would find some way to fix things, to make them better.

Mal wasn’t unaware of this, so he deliberately measured out his voice gentle-but-firm. “Wasn’t a suggestion, mei-mei.” As she looked up at him, aghast, he gave her one last forbidding expression before turning to head to his own bed. “Don’t go making the mistake of thinking it was.”

***

She’s lying on the floor crying, and she can’t figure out why she’s screaming. Well, she’s not screaming now, but she was earlier and she can’t figure it out. She doesn’t scream. She hasn’t in – well, she doesn’t remember how long it’s been, but she knows that she doesn’t do that anymore.

She hasn’t cried in a long time, either. Crying, though, that’s kind of nice. First tears in so long, real tears – really crying, breathless, holding-yourself-can’t-do-anything-else crying. Complete take over of reality. Like orgasm.

The crying she can handle. It’s a release.

The screaming, though, that terrifies her.

***

It was River’s turn to make breakfast, again, and frankly, she was in a mood to ruin it, but she understood that that would be irresponsible, so she felt compelled to reapply herself to the task. It was her turn. To take her mind off of her mood she started singing, “I'm comin' 'round to open the blinds. You can't hide here any longer. My God you need to rinse those puffy eyes. You can't last here any longer.

By the time Simon walked into the galley, still angry from the day before, she was half way through the chorus, “And you're asking me why pain's the only way to happiness, and I promise you you'll see the sun again. Come on take my hand. We're going for a walk, I know you can. You can wear anything as long as it's not black. Please don't mourn forever. She's not coming back.” As Simon wondered, annoyed, if this was to his address, he heard the Captain’s sharp breath behind him. When the Captain pushed past him into the kitchen, Simon stalked back to the passenger dorms.

Breakfast itself started out as its normal noisy affair, until Inara asked where Simon and Kaylee were. Mal watched Zoë’s expression, but there wasn’t the slightest tell to be found. He answered neutrally. “Saw Simon briefly, guess he decided he wasn’t hungry. Haven’t seen Kaylee this mornin’.”

River rolled her eyes and answered. It wasn’t like at least half the people at the table didn’t know already, after all. “I think they’re on a break.”

Everyone took this news without comment, except Jayne, who snorted. “Them two’s had more breaks in their courtin’ than I’ve had in ma bones.”

***

Disembodied anger and annoyance floated into her consciousness as she woke. She couldn’t feel where they were coming from, and damn it if she wasn’t doing her best to keep her mind in her own skull. She pushed the thought aside. Of course she was more vulnerable when she slept, but now she was awake: she had to focus.

She smiled tightly as the lyrics played across her mind. Do you remember telling me you found the sweetest thing of all? You said one day this was worth dying for, so be thankful you knew her at all…

The door of her cell opened. “On your feet.” She rose without complaint, though not without effort. “Turn around. Face on the wall. Hands behind your back.” A guard moved behind her and cuffed her securely, before pulling her off of the wall and toward him.

New day dawning. She tries to let her mind float away, but there is too much anger. Adrenaline. And now she’s just so much more pissed with herself because she has to be here for this. When they reach the interview room, Green and Banks are already there, and her chin rises just a fraction higher than it should be. Too proud. It would be impossible to see if the agents were less trained, but to them it’s a coup. She’s reacting.

Green smiled wanly, and the space of three loud heartbeats passed before two guards bullied another female figure, cuffed and hooded, into the room. Here, now, the adrenaline is a bonus. ‘Too small to be River,’ hits her before she has a chance to think it might be her lover. “Time to step this program up, Miss Swann.”

The female hidden under the black hood was forced to her knees beside Banks, who’s hand immediately reached down to touch the female’s head, stilling her slight movements.

Ceres barely spared the hooded figure more than one heartbeat’s worth of a glance, before turning her gaze back fully on Green.

Green smiled. “I think we understand each other, but let me be clear. This is our newest prisoner.” Banks pulled the hood off and Ceres started forward slightly, but managed to pull herself together almost at the same time. The girl’s face was flushed and dirty, blonde hair tangled and caught in the gag cutting into her mouth. Her blue eyes went wider, more scared, as she caught sight of Ceres standing bound before her. Green’s smile never reached his eyes, but Ceres knew that he was pleased with himself. “I see you two do recognise one another. Excellent.”

The girl was Harley Evans; the insignia on her collar indicated that she was a second year military academy cadet. Ceres had known Harley in her life-before-college: Harley had been source of some babysitting money first, and then, later, Alistair’s girlfriend. Ceres had left everyone behind after her siblings’ deaths, sparing no second glances and few second thoughts.

“From this moment on, she is your responsibility. Every punishment you provoke, will be given to her as well. For every blow you earn, she will receive two.” Ceres is too present not too react. Her eyes flash to Harley’s, then back to Green’s. The shake of her head is slight, but slips past her usual iron control, though she does manage to keep the ‘no’ forming on her lips from gaining voice. Green doesn’t fail to notice, and actually smirks. “Oh yes, Miss Swann. Most certainly yes. And you will know. You’ll be present to watch, to listen. She will be with you at all times. In your cell. In training. In discipline. And she’ll know why she’s hurting. She’ll witness your obedience or disobedience, cooperation or lack thereof. We will start now.”

As Green continued to stare into her eyes, Banks flipped open a file, and clicked a pen before asking, “How did you become a member of Serenity’s crew?”

Her answer is prompt, flat. “I was never a member of Serenity’s crew.”

It’s not exactly what they want to hear, but they’ve been asking the question for days now, and they hadn’t made it this far. They pass on the option to hit her for being uncooperative – after all, she’s moving there herself, albeit slowly. Really, it’s more than Banks expected. Miss Evans clearly was the perfect choice. “Very well. What role did you have while aboard Serenity?”

“I was a prisoner.”

Banks’ pen scratched at the papers in his folder. “And yet you were walking around armed, Miss Swann. Explain.”

“I gave them my parole.”

Banks scribbles. She’s dragging it out, but at least they’re getting it.

“Conduct unbecoming, Miss Swann,” Green notes aloud, but Ceres ignores him. It’s not true, but it’s also not a question. She doesn’t respond.

“What were the terms of your parole, Miss Swann?” Banks asked.

Mal’s words floated immediately to the surface of her mind. ‘You’ve never sworn your commissioned oath, so you can’t break it. I’m willing to offer you parole on the following terms: you take no actions against Serenity or her crew, you pay for your room and board by helping out: maybe you can help River, or help Simon understand what was done to her. Maybe you can help on jobs, don’t know that you’re willing. You can help stack and store and the like. Always something to be done. For my part, I will not expect you to take any overt actions against the Alliance – might ask you to – but I won’t expect it. Finally, you get captured by the Alliance or Blue Sun, and I’ll do unto you as I would if you got caught by Reavers. You willin’ to accept these terms for parole?’ She couldn’t tell them that, but she could, she decided, give them an abbreviated version.

“To take no action against Serenity or her crew, to pay for my room and board in kind.”

“What kind of kind?”

“Manual labour.”

“Not, then, armed insurrection?”

“I was at no time expected to take any actions against the Union of Allied Planets or its forces.”

“You took up arms against Alliance forces on Osiris.”

“Incorrect intelligence. I surrendered unprompted on Osiris.”

“What exactly were you doing there?”

“Assisting in the rendering of medical aid.”

“To a known fugitive?”

Ceres knew she couldn’t answer too promptly. It would give the game away. She allowed the smallest vestige of confusion to cross her features, and hesitated. “I don’t understand the question,” she said finally.

“Dr. Simon Tam is a known fugitive, Miss Swann. Warrants for his arrest have been on the Cortex for the last year.”

She made her voice small, and ignored the urge to call the agents idiots. Logic would dictate that the entire crew of Serenity were criminals, if not actually fugitives. “I didn’t have Cortex access aboard Serenity.”

It was a lie, and she knew they didn’t believe her. Green arched an eyebrow and Banks scribbled. They’d wind up back here again.

“What is Simon Tam to you?”

“Dr. Tam is a member of Serenity’s crew.” Green back handed her, almost on a reflex. It sent her sprawling. While Ceres struggled to her feet, the guard on Harley threw a punch that knocked the girl from her knees to her face, and followed up with a kick to the stomach.

Banks registered the look of surprise on Ceres’ face almost before she did, and met her eyes, hard. “When we said two blows for each one you provoke, we did not mean of equal value. Her value in this room lies solely in what she is worth to you. Every line we hesitate to cross with you as too final, too damaging – we will dance over when it comes to her. And if she dies? We’ll just replace her. Another neighbour, or a childhood friend of your sister, or a former classmate of brother – or one of your cousins. It doesn’t matter to us. It only matters because it matters to you.”

Green took that moment to speak up again. “You though you were alone in this cold, dark universe, but you’re not. Isn’t it wonderful?”

Kill me now,’ she half-thought, half-prayed. Nightmares made to order, a Blue Sun speciality. Love takes hostages. It gets inside you. It eats you out and leaves you crying in the darkness, so a simple phrase… turns into a glass splinter working its way into your heart. It hurts. Not just in the imagination. Not just in the mind. It's a soul-hurt, a body-hurt, a real gets-inside-you-and-rips-you-apart pain. I hate love.

As Banks looked back at his notes, she makes her gaze pure military eyes-forward-and-center. “Let’s try that again, Miss Swann. What is Simon Tam to you?

Her voice remains flat, despite the fear clawing at her brain stem. “Dr. Tam was my medic during my time onboard Serenity.”

***

Aren and Jayne were the last two left at the breakfast table, and each of them were wondering if the other was just as deliberate as themselves in dawdling. With Serenity due to hit Belleraphon later in the day, most of the crew was off making preparations, or, where that was impossible, pretending to be very busy so that they could avoid one another. Aren arched an eyebrow at Jayne. “I’m making some more coffee. Would you like some?”

“Yeah, thanks.” Jayne licked his lips as he heard her moving around the galley behind him. “Your last day here,” he ventured.

She smiled to herself. Sounded like he might bite. “Yes.”

“Glad to being going back to civilisation?” He tried to keep his voice even, to play it cool. The lady doc was kind of an ice princess at the table, he knew.

“Yes.” She set cups in front of them both, before she sat.

They sipped their coffees in almost companionable silence before Jayne offered, “Must be hard sleepin’ in the same bed as ‘Nara and not getting any.”

Aren didn’t say anything but she knew that her quirked eyebrow and tight smile were an obvious confirmation.

“Guess it’ll be nice to be getting back ta yer own bunk.”

“Yes.” She drained the last of her coffee, and rose. “But I wouldn’t mind a chance to say a proper goodbye, first.”

All things considered, Jayne felt that really, it was almost a pity she was a doctor. “Shiny.”

*** When her answers dry up, Ceres receives a few painful blows, and watches as Harley is beaten severely, before the two of them are moved back to their cell. Harley is left bound and gagged as she’s tossed to the floor, but Ceres’ hands are uncuffed before she’s shoved inside.

It had crossed Ceres’ mind, briefly, that the girl might be in on it, but it didn’t seem likely. As a reassurance, or perhaps a punishment, given the certainty of what she’d find, Ceres had opened her mind to Harley’s as the blows of the girl’s beating rained down on her. The girl was suffering, confused, terrified. Her fear hadn’t even quite had time to melt to horror.

Now, Ceres keeps her mind firmly in her own skull as she crosses the short distance to her cellmate. Harley’s body tenses as Ceres’ reaches to touch her, and Ceres hesitates, swallows. “Cadet Evans, I’m going to remove your gag. Before I do that, you should be aware that our cell is likely monitored.” Ceres squats down next to Harley and carefully unties it. There are the tiniest traces of blood around it where the girl’s lips are split, but Ceres knows that she should check for more serious wounds, even if she can’t do a damn thing about them. “Cadet Evans, I’d like you to roll into the recovery position if you can. Can you do that?” The girl nods and struggles to maintain her balance with her wrists still cuffed behind her back. When Ceres uses her hands to help the girl into position, Harley almost doesn’t tense at all.

As Ceres runs her hands across the girl’s body to check for injuries, Harley speaks for the first time. “What do they want with us?” Her eyes, searching Ceres’, see the older girl’s eyebrow twitch, and Harley adds a belated, “Ma’am.”

“The answer to that is extremely complicated, Cadet, and frankly, irrelevant. It comes down to this: we are prisoners of a dangerous, illegal paramilitary organisation.”

“But it’s Blue Sun!”

Ceres voice goes hard, and the lines of her face stern, though she doesn’t quite keep the fear from her eyes. “Cadet Evans, if I’m not mistaken, you would have been given classes on the nature of our government and the chain of command. Am I incorrect in thinking this?”

“No…” It’s clear that Harley doesn’t know where this is going.

Ceres’ voice is crisp, even. “Then please point out to me where, exactly, Blue Sun falls in your chain of command.” As the girl licks her split lips, Ceres takes pity on her. “Now, you understand.” Ceres pauses again before asking, “What are you training for?”

“Engineering Corps.” The girl’s response is quiet, mostly flat.

Remembering the bright child and teenager the girl had been, this answer does not really surprise Ceres. “No combat training?” Ceres ventures.

“I’ve blown stuff up in training.” There’s a touch of pride in the girl’s voice, before what Ceres must have been asking hits her, and the pride disappears. “We don’t do it under live fire for another six months though.”

“And no SERE training until next year, I guess?” Ceres offers, unsure of it’s placement in the engineering track.

“Sear, Ma’am?”

“Survival, evasion, resistance, escape.” Ceres manages not to roll her eyes, but her tone is a little weary.

“Oh.” There is a long pause. “I don’t think we cover that in third year, either.” It’s pretty obvious that Harley is trying to keep her voice neutral, and Ceres’ covers her eyes with a hand. “Am I going to die, Ma’am?”

“We’re all going to die, Cadet Evans.” Ceres drops her hand and looks straight into the younger girl’s eyes. “If you’re asking if you’re going to die soon,” Harley nods and Ceres continues, “then the answer is: probably, yes.” One way or another. Ceres takes a deep breath before continuing. “I don’t expect you to understand, in any meaningful sense, but I feel that I should make clear that I can’t cooperate with them. Even when this gets bad.” At Harley’s widening eyes, she amends her statement to, “When it gets worse.” Ceres doesn’t know what to say next. An apology seems both appropriate and entirely out of line. “You can resent me, if you have to. Just remember that you’re a soldier, and they’re not in your chain of command. Nothing they say, nothing they do, means anything to the uniform you’re wearing. Do you understand?” At the girl’s tiny nod, Ceres ends with a simple, “Good.”

Ceres measures out ten quick-but-slowing heartbeats before Harley speaks again. “You answered some of their questions,” the girl points out.

“Command decision.” The phrase is ludicrous even in her own ears, but technically, that’s what it was. A senior cadet to a junior one. Children raising children. The worst part is that Ceres knows that Harley finds it reassuring. Harley really thinks Ceres is keeping it together, and will keep it together as it gets bad. Worse. Ceres pushes the thought aside. She will keep it together. She has to, and it’s not like she doesn’t have practice. “It had no tactical relevance.”

+So much for no more handles,+ her critical voice snorted.

But she’s pleased to find herself unprepared to be blamed for this. *Let ‘em twist.* It’s bravado, and she knows it, but it’s a flickering Roman candle against the darkness, and thus it’s welcome.

+After all, it will be gone too soon.+

*After all,* she agrees.

“Try to get some sleep, Cadet,” Ceres says as she lies stretched flat on the floor of her cell.

“Yes Ma’am,” Harley replies. She is tired, but she knows that sleep is unlikely to come. She closes her eyes, however, to avoid the appearance of disobedience.

It’s not very long – perhaps another hour at most – before guards come back to take them to the interrogation room. The guards force Harley to her knees and shackle her hands, still cuffed, to the wall behind her, and manacle Ceres with her hands above her head.

It’s a few minutes before the agents arrive, and Ceres can tell that Harley is ready to cry by the time they do. Agent Cooper gives Harley a short pointed glance before pulling out his combat knife. He runs the tip of it lightly under the colourfully bruised bone of Ceres’ jaw and gets straight to the point. “So.” His eyes catch hers, and the smirk in his hazel stare is triumphal. “Start that shit from yesterday up again and I will carve the lyrics into her skin.”

*** Ceres was surprised. Harley had groaned and yelled under the pain, and shrieked at the terror, but it wasn’t until she was back in the relative safety of their cell that she cried. It’s painfully obvious that the girl is trying her best to be brave, to be a good soldier. She was all of eighteen, and trying to hold it together for all she was worth, but Ceres knew that it couldn’t last long. The girl was an engineer. There was nothing in her training – or, Ceres was certain – earlier life experience to prepare her for dark rooms, terrifying choices, savage beatings, or the degradation that Ceres knew was just around the corner. Ceres cradled the girl’s head in her lap to help her sleep, and propped herself in the corner against the wall. She already wants to die, and she knows it won’t be long before Harley does too. She let the words form on her lips, but didn’t let them slip past.

As I lie tossing in my bed, lost in my fears remembering what you said, and I try to hide the truth within, the mask of myself shows its face again. Still I lie time and time again.

There were only a few more hours left before Serenity would hit Belleraphon, and with the help of one of Inara’s soothers, River laid herself down to sleep, leaving the door to her room open a crack, in case Simon wanted to check on her. Sometimes the only way she knew how to take care of him was to let him know that he could still take care of her. She turned toward the wall and closed her eyes, whispering:

As I find truth where I found it times before, as I search for your hope, I'm finding so much more. And I try to be more like you, and I deny myself to prove my heart is true.

In the infirmary, the scalpel felt cool, familiar, in Simon’s smooth hand, and he sighted down the blade. It was perfect. Creatures of habit, Simon picked up an alcohol wipe and swabbed down his skin before he’d even realised what he was doing.

I hear your voice calling; the time has come for me. Inside this life I’m living, there’s nothing left for me. My mind is slowly fading, so far away from me.

His doctor-fingers palpated the skin of what he called the cubital fossa (but what everyone else would call his inner elbow) of his left arm. He squeezed and relaxed his fist a few times and his forehead wrinkled in concentration, then eased, as the barely-there bite brought a smile to lips.

*** *** ***

Even Roses Have Thorns

Chapter Forty-Four: Veluti in speculum (As in a mirror) Part V

*** *** ***

Aren had packed everything, and checked Inara’s room twice before she headed to the infirmary. She hadn’t brought much with her, and she didn’t want to leave anything behind. Once they hit Belleraphon, they wouldn’t have much time. She wanted to be ready to leave immediately. She didn’t know how the crew of Serenity could live like this constantly; one daring-adventure-gone-wrong was enough to last Aren a lifetime.

She frowned at the infirmary door when it refused her admittance. The blinds were down, so she knocked, but there was no response. She went to bridge. “Mal? May I have a moment?”

“Sure, Aren.” Mal nodded toward the co-pilot’s chair, and turned towards her when she sat.

“Is there a problem? I’ve been locked out of the infirmary.”

Mal felt his unease rise and starting flipping the ship into autopilot. “Didn’t tell anyone to put a lock on the door.”

Aren shrugged. “There’s a key-code.” But Mal was already walking from the bridge.

The door was locked from the inside, and an electronic code had been set. The door wasn’t budging. Mal snapped the nearest comm. off the wall. “This is the captain. All crew to the infirmary at once. Ma shong.”

Zoë arrived first, followed immediately by Jayne, then quickly by Kaylee, then shortly by Inara.

“Where’re Simon and River?”

Zoë frowned slightly. “River’s asleep in her room, saw her there when I was passin’.”

Mal’s mouth tightened, but he didn’t say anything. The girl was probably drugged to her eyeballs. “Kaylee get this door open.”

Kaylee stepped up and started fingering the pad. “Can’t Cap’n,” she began reasonably. “It’s a quarantine lock down. Only Simon’s got the code.” With the ugly twist of suspicion already present in the minds of Mal, Aren, Zoë and Inara, it was a little surprising that Kaylee’s brain snapped across the mental leap as quickly as those of the others. As Kaylee’s head whipped around to face the others, she could feel time slowing down.

But Mal spoke first. “’Nara, take Kaylee to the shuttle. Zoë, go stay with River. Jayne get the blow torch.” As the others began to move, Mal turned to Aren. “How long’ve we got, doctor?”

“Depends on what he’s done, and when he did it.”

On hearing the flat analysis of Aren’s voice, Inara almost stepped away from her young friend whom she had pulled into her arms. “Renci de fozu.”

But Kaylee didn’t notice that she was almost dropped. She hadn’t noticed that she’d been gathered. “No.”

Inara’s attention was firmly brought back the girl in her arms with this tiny vocalisation. “Kaylee, let’s get you to the shuttle.”

“No.” Kaylee’s voice was soft, but getting firm. “No ‘Nara. Cap’n. Captain!” Her head whipped around to find him. She didn’t wait for him to acknowledge her. “We gotta shut down the engine. Gotta shut it down now.”

The only recognisable part of Mal’s tone was the worry. “What the hell, lil’Kaylee?”

“Fastest way ta pop the lock.” At Mal’s nod, she headed to the engine room at a dead run.

“Jayne, go with her.”

“No, Mal.” The merc shook his head. “Ain’t guaranteed it’ll work. Best get the torch in case.”

Mal nodded and Jayne headed away in his original direction. “’Nara, go stay with Kaylee. Don’t let her come back here til she gets my say-so.”

“Of course, Mal.” The fear on Inara’s face flickered but she pulled up one of her many comforting masks as she made her way to the engine room.

Once alone, Mal turned to the doctor. “What we likely to find?”

“He’s a doctor, Mal. Trauma surgeon. If he’s alive we’ll be lucky.”

Everyone stumbled or started a little as the engine went out like a single candle in a crypt; more eerie, as the auxiliary power started up, it too was shut down. It was only a few seconds of darkness, but all the conscious minds on Serenity couldn’t help but return to the awful memory of the fire that had left them on the drift to die.

Mal and Aren heard the lock pop and were pulling the door open as the engine sprang to life again and the lights and sounds of the ship drove away the dark for a moment. For Mal and Aren, it was an especially short moment. Under the harsh light of the infirmary bulbs, Simon’s still form lay at once cold and yet debauched: corrupted, ill-used. He lay on the infirmary bed, left arm held out over the floor; under it entirely too much blood pooled. On his stomach, where his right hand rested, a bloody scalpel also lay. Hope drained from Mal.

“Blood. Okay. This is actually quite promising.” Despite her words, Aren’s soft tone was too grim to actually be cheering. Mal turned wordlessly to her, as she set to work immediately. ***

Ceres had been pumped full of endorphin inhibitors, adrenaline, and a cocktail of neural suppressants to lower her mental walls. Other chemicals kept Harley awake and aware through her beatings; she cried all the time now. When Agent Cooper started to cut the clothes from the younger girl’s body, Ceres managed an unsteady, “No.”

“Then read for us the location of Serenity.”

***

When she had done everything she could, Aren gestured for Mal to join her on the outside of the infirmary. “He needs more blood,” she began. “I’ve used up the last of the O+ and the O-. We need to set up a line between him and River.”

Mal looked over to Jayne who was waiting in the lounge with the unneeded blowtorch. “Jayne, you go bring River up here. Try not to wake her. Tell Zoë to take the bridge.” Jayne just nodded and left.

Aren continued. “He’s lost a lot of blood. He cut the major artery of the arm. He didn’t sever it…”

“That’s good, right?” Mal interrupted.

Aren bit her lip. “Yes. And no. I can repair it. If he’d severed it, though, likely he wouldn’t have bled so much. Dying this way – well, it takes it’s toll on the body.” Aren let that sink in before she continued. “His blood-alcohol level is so high that I’m frankly surprised that he had the dexterity to find and open the brachial artery, instead of just butchering everything in his arm.”

“Simon’s drunk?” Somehow, to Mal, that was far stranger than the tense young man’s suicide attempt.

“I wouldn’t say drunk. He passed drunk a few drinks back. Dr. Tam is, in strict medical parlance, fucked up.” Aren turned away from Mal to gaze back in the window. “He’s also taken a pretty unhealthy dose of aspirin.”

“So, you think maybe this was an accident? He got drunk and then thought that this was a good idea?” Mal offered.

Aren’s arched expression was a clear denial. “Oh, no. No, for sure it was deliberate. He wasn’t numbing his pain with the booze and drugs. That was to make sure his blood had the consistency of tap water when he cut in to his artery. We’re just lucky that this is the way he decided to go out.” At the sound of Jayne’s approaching boots, both fell silent. “Okay, Jayne. Get her up on the counter.”

“Jayne. Do me a favour, let Kaylee know Simon’s alive and Aren’s patching him up.” Aren looked up from the lines she was running between the two siblings, but didn’t add anything.

“Sure Mal.”

“What did you mean?” Mal asked as soon as Jayne was gone.

“There are several dozen ways he could have picked to go out – faster and painless – but he picked this one. If he’d picked something else, well, it would have been over before he hit the floor.”

“Cry for help?”

“You think he had anyway of knowing that Kaylee could get that lock open?”

“No.”

There was another few seconds of silence as Aren carefully studied her monitors. “Mal, close the valve on River’s line.”

“What the hell?” Mal said.

“Can’t lose both of them. Close the line. Just for now.” Mal moved to obey as Aren carefully palpated Simon’s abdomen. “If you can’t do what I say, get someone else in here, Mal.”

“What’s going on?”

“Sudden acute gastrointestinal haemorrhage. Alcohol and aspirin.” At Aren’s words, the penny dropped. Simon was just bleeding River’s blood out. Can’t lose both of them.

Aren worked quietly for a few minutes, and Mal just stood at the ready. “Should I get Zoë to change course?”

“We still headed for Belleraphon?”

“Yes.”

“Then no. We’ll definitely need medical facilities.”

Mal almost didn’t ask. “Will we get there in time?”

“I really couldn’t say.”

“This is the Captain. I need Zoë to the infirmary. Inara, take the bridge – best speed current destination. Kaylee and Jayne to the engine room.”

Aren wanted to contradict him, but Zoë was the best-qualified member of the crew for the task of helping her. Still, the continued strain… Aren forced herself to focus on one problem at a time, each step in order.

As Mal turned to the door, he spoke again. “Zoë’s on her way. I’m gonna let Kaylee know what’s going on, get her to do what needs to be done, then take the bridge.”

After Mal left, Aren noticed that River had woken and was staring at her hand as she tried to reach Simon’s. As Aren walked toward her with a soother, the girl didn’t ask any questions, merely mumbled the observation, “Two by two, hands are blue.”

“Yes, River. Just some blood loss. You’ll both be fine.” Aren gently stroked the girl’s hair as she positioned the hypo.

“Two by two. Hands are blue.” River tried to emphasis the urgency of her message, but she was asleep again in a moment.

*** *** ***

Even Roses Have Thorns

Chapter Forty-Five: Omnes vulnerant, ultima necat (All (hours) wound, the last kills).

A/N: The prayer here is Tagore's "The Grasp of Your Hand".

*** *** ***

As Mal neared the engine room, he could hear Kaylee’s voice, though it was completely unintelligible through all of her tears.

“Hey now, lil’Kaylee, Aren’s patchin’ ‘im up right enough and River’s in there giving blood, and it’ll all be fine, ya see? We ain’t even changed course.” Jayne assumed that this was a good sign: Mal’s plan for Simon’s day was still going ahead, after all. At another indistinct soggy objection, Jayne continued. “No. Ain’t yer fault, Kaylee. No point tryin’ figure out why a man’d do such a thing, don’t make no kinda sense.” Honestly Jayne worried that it did make sense on some level, and he hoped the day would never come when he actually understood a man’s reason for ending his own life. “Tell ya one thing, though: nobody kills themselves over a fight with a girl, you stop thinking that it were anythin’ you done.”

***

As soon as they were thrown into their cell, Ceres immediately began silently stripping off her clothes. If Harley was naked, the Ceres could not leave her alone in that vulnerability. She tucked her sweater around the younger girl’s torso and began tearing her shirt into bandages. As she wrapped Harley’s ribs, the girl began to wake.

“No. NO.”

“Harley, it’s okay, we’re alone again. I’m just wrapping your ribs.”

At Harley’s simple “don’t” Ceres stopped. “Don’t bother. Promise me something.”

“If I can.”

“You can.” Harley’s hoarse voice was insistent.

“Okay, what?”

“The next time they come for us – you – you kill me.”

“Harley.”

“Don’t. Ma’am. You know there’s no way out of this. You know that there’s no way this ends well. The only thing left is to end it quickly.”

Ceres wanted to protest, but she couldn’t. She’d known from the start that there was a chance that it would end like this. She took a breath and let it out. “Yeah, okay.”

“Promise me.” Harley’s voice was harsh, demanding.

“I promise.”

***

When Mal made it to the bridge, he could see Inara checking the course for any possible places where they could shave time. “Got anything?”

“I made a couple of course corrections. Are you ready to take over?” Inara didn’t bother to try to hide the strain in her voice.

“Yes.” Inara rose and Mal took the pilot’s seat.

After giving him a moment to orientate himself, Inara ventured to ask, “How’s Simon doing now?”

“Don’t rightly know. From what Aren tells me we surmounted the biggest hurdle in just finding him alive.” Mal’s pause was heavy, and Inara didn’t try to fill it. After a moment, he went on unprompted. “Still, she’s scared enough not to be offering doctor-platitudes ‘bout it bein’ alright. Won’t even say she’s certain Simon’ll make it to Belleraphon. Which I’m guessing,” he threw a meaningful glance in Inara’s direction, “was his whole damn point to begin with.”

“Oh, no, Mal.” Inara wanted to contradict him, but it just made so much sense. It was just so Simon. They sat together in silence for a few moments before Inara rose to leave; she tried to dredge up some small words of comfort, but all she could manage was, “We’ll get him to Belleraphon in time. He’ll pull through, Mal. We’ll pull him through.”

She listened without turning from the doorway as Mal spoke again. “He’d better. Pullin’ a stunt like that without so much as a fare-thee-well to Kaylee or River? Letting Kaylee’s last memory a him be a fight over him cuttin’?” Mal barely paused, his anger increasingly apparent. “How could he be that selfish? I swear, ‘Nara, when that boy wakes up I’m gonna take my belt to him so hard he won’t sit near on a week.”

***

When they heard the footsteps coming toward them, the girls stilled their small movements and looked at each other. Both pairs of eyes were still red-rimmed, but their lashes were finally dry. With Ceres’ help, Harley made it to her knees, and folded herself into Ceres’ embrace. She closed her eyes and tried not to concentrate on anything but the sensation of her own heartbeats in her chest as she counted them silently.

Ceres snapped the girl’s neck, and laid her down on the floor of their cell.

She didn’t have much time, but she shimmed into her pants and pulled her sweater over her head before the door to her cell slid open.

***

Inara sat heavily on the stool in front of her computer; by habit rather than intention her eyes scanned the search she had set. Still nothing. It wasn’t even disappointment anymore, or sadness – just a quietly internalised fact of life. She didn’t even notice the checking, or the lack of a result.

She recalled Duran Haymer’s number and entered it, then waited politely for it to be transferred to his screen.

“Miss Serra.” He acknowledged. “Will you be delayed?” he asked mildly, hinting at his assumption behind the call.

“No, I’m afraid we’re much more likely to be early. There’s been a problem. An accident onboard. Please, if you can, have your surgeon prepared for serious trauma, haemorrhaging – we’ll need as much O+ blood as is possible to arrange for. Enough for two patients.”

Haymer’s always somewhat sad eyes turned serious. “I’m sorry to hear that, Miss Serra. I will inform the surgical team.”

***

“‘If she dies? We’ll just replace her. Another neighbour, or a childhood friend of your sister, or a former classmate of brother – or one of your cousins. It doesn’t matter to us.’ You see, I remember Agent Banks explaining this to you. I remember it distinctly, in fact. The part I don’t understand, Miss Swann,” Green began almost amiably, “is whether you didn’t believe us, or whether you didn’t think we could do it.” He gazed at her as if curious as to the answer, before his eyes glanced down to the dead body his guards had brought in with their prisoner. “Your responsibility, we said that too. Yours to condemn – well, that was certainly implied. But she was not yours to destroy. Her pain was not yours to end.” Green’s hand when to a call button. “Agent Cooper.”

Ceres, aching arms manacled once again above her, watched as Agent Cooper stepped through with his hand around the arm of another female figure; this time the female’s skin was olive, instead of pale, and her black hair hung loose from behind the dark hood down to her hips. After Cooper, a guard stepped in, and Ceres tried not to think of him in such euphemistic terms as ‘the guard from earlier’. His hand, too, was clasped tightly around another prisoner’s arm – this time the figure was male. Young, too, Ceres thought from her view of his arms under his t-shirt. The woman was thrown to the floor while the male was manacled, kneeling, to the wall.

“It was a two for one arrangement, was it not?” Green continued. “Very well. Then you may have the blood of two young women on your hands. Agent Cooper, in your own time.” Cooper pulled the hood from the girl’s head, and Green supplied her name, “Yes. Elizabeth Disgleirio. A friend of your sister’s, I believe.”

As Agent Cooper began cutting the girl’s clothes off, Ceres abandoned herself to prayer for the second time in what she suspected was less than a day. Let me not pray to be sheltered from dangers, but to be fearless in facing them.

When Cooper removed Elizabeth’s gag, Green reached for it. He smiled and spoke as he tied it tightly around Ceres’ face. “This is about you, not about the intelligence you hold in your brain, or even your abilities. Just about you, and your illusion of control. I will rid you of that. You have nothing here that I don’t give you, and have blatantly squandered the opportunities I have given you. So, this is a lesson. And I’m told the memorable ones always hurt.”

Ceres tried not to react as the spit-slick cloth was slipped behind her teeth. Let me not beg for the stilling of my pain, but for the heart to conquer it.

Agent Cooper turned to the guard and gestured to Elizabeth in a bored tone. “Rape this woman.” Ceres averted her eyes as the other woman refused, pleaded, and stood stock still as the young man in the hood struggled against his bonds.

When the guard finished, Cooper merely put a bullet between Elizabeth’s eyes. Green pulled the gag loose and let it hang around Ceres’ neck.

Let me not crave in anxious fear to be saved, but hope for the patience to win my freedom.

Banks pulled the hood off of the young man on his knees, and pulled the gag free of the boy’s mouth as he saw the boy’s eyes take in the room and it’s two dead, naked, bodies. Banks’ eyebrows rose fractionally as the boy lost the entire contents of his stomach.

Green’s voice interrupted the silence that followed. “Well, that was somewhat more – spectacular – than the introduction I’d planned. Miss Swann, I wonder if you recognise …” but he was interrupted.

At the name Swann, the boy’s head took in the presence of the final girl in the room, and what little colour left in his face drained away completely. “C.C.?” He croaked.

Grant me that I may not be a coward, feeling Your mercy in my success alone; but let me find the grasp of Your hand in my failure.

It was her cousin Sam.

***

“We’re losing him.” The faintest trace of unease marred Aren’s otherwise cool professional tone.

Once again, Zoë flipped the valve on River’s line closed, wondering if there was enough blood left between the two of them now to keep even one of them alive.

***

“I’ll make this easy. Is Dr. Tam aboard Serenity?”

“No.”

Finally. “Miss Swann, were is the present location of Dr. Tam?”

“The present location of Dr. Simon Tam is – beyond all mortal reach.”

Simultaneously, Agent Cooper’s punch threw Ceres face-first into a wall, and the guard on Sam punched him heavily into the stomach, twice.

As Ceres pushed off of the wall, her eyes rested on her cousin’s expression of pain. She turned back to face Cooper, while rubbing the blood from her mouth onto her shoulder, and spoke. “See? This is why I don’t tell you anything.”

Cooper just laid into Ceres for a minute; Ceres could feel the pain of Sam’s blows too as they ran together in her mind.

“Miss Swann!” It was Banks’ voice. She opened her eyes to see that he and his partner had entered the room during the punishment beatings. She pulled herself from her side to her knees, resting her weight back on her feet.

Banks watched with a perplexed frown as the girl struggled to her knees. She never, ever, remained down. “Why do you always get up? Why don’t you ever just lay there?” He knew that his question probably puzzled Cooper and Green more than their prisoner. “You know you’re just going to fall again, so why?”

She really did know better than to make eye contact, but sometimes she couldn’t help herself. She could feel her lips twisting into a half-smirk that she didn’t feel, as she answered him. “Sometimes the fall is all that’s left.”

Banks looked away, ostensibly to look back at his file, but Green and Cooper understood; there was just something about that girl that crawled under your skin and found every button to push. When Banks spoke again, he was back on message. “Miss Swann, where is the current location of Dr. Simon Tam? I warn you not to repeat your previous answer to this question.”

“I don’t know.”

“Best guess, then, Miss Swann.”

“Hell.” Seventh circle, second ring. Lost forever to the woods.

“Dr. Tam is dead?” Green and Banks exchanged a look. It didn’t even occur to them to believe her; clearly this was some new gambit she’d worked out.

“Yes.”

Banks continued probing. “Details, Miss Swann.”

Green and Banks changed their minds as she spoke; her tone was too certain and pleased for them to think she was feinting – if her hands had been free, Banks could imagine her licking her finger and drawing a triumphal 1 in the air as she answered freely, “Tam, Dr. Simon, deceased. Time of death: sixteen forty one Universal Time. Cause of death: sudden acute gastrointestinal haemorrhage.”

Banks acknowledged her point with a simple, “touché.”

A quick glance at Green’s watch told him that Simon Tam had expired almost seven minutes ago.

*** *** *** Just Chapter 46 Chapters 46-50 *** *** ***

*** *** ***

COMMENTS

Friday, March 16, 2007 2:44 AM

GIRLFAN


All the chapters have originally been posted here, singly or occassionally in pairs.

As new chapters go up, I add links between them, and every ten I bunch them together. It may be a personal quirk, but when I first started reading stories that were already long by the time I got there, it was nicer when I didn't have to load lots of pages etc to get each fix. I tend to read straight through. I suppose this second upload is a nod toward readers like myself.

If you perfer to read a bit at a time, the original chapters are still up with the comments they garnered. Please take a moment to read them, too. Sometimes the comments are the funniest bits.

Oh, and if you add your own comments, that would be shiny.

Thank you to all who've shared this with me, and especially to everyone who's commented, whether publically or privately. All the support is appreciated.

Friday, March 16, 2007 2:46 AM

GIRLFAN


Sorry, used to be 10 "chapters", but now as the "chapters" (still not really chapters in terms of traditional length) have gotten longer, I now post in groups of 5.

Friday, March 16, 2007 1:23 PM

BLUEEYEDBRIGADIER


The level of utter brilliance only goes up when you post in omnibus form, girlfan;)

BEB


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Even Roses Have Thorns, Chapter Forty-Seven
Coda to Simon's time of dying. PG (language, themes).

Even Roses Have Thorns, Chapter Forty-Six
Simon's point of view, in his time of dying. NC17.

Even Roses Have Thorns, Chapters 41-45
All already posted before, just posted together for convience of new and (re) readers. Overall rating NC-17; this applies to all chapters in this grouping, for violence, non-con, death, extreme angst (hurt w/o comfort) and generalised squickiness. Canon pairings +1 (River/ofc). Postive comments perfered; any cease and desists recieved will be complied with, and shown off at parties.